What is employability?

Those of us who work in the careers arena within higher education have a special insight into students’ views on employability. Although interest in employability is generally very high, the difficulty is engaging students in the right activities at the right time.

Many students believe that they need to have a defined career path while they are undertaking their studies which they should actively be planning for. As a result, those without specific plans don’t make best use of careers services. They assume careers services’ main role is to check CVs and run practice job interviews.

These are important roles, but are a small part of employability support. Employability is about encouraging students to reflect on their ongoing development, to be wiser in how they invest their time, and to form well-informed plans for the future.

HEFCE’s Learning Gain project and HESA’s review of graduate outcomes data (informally referred to as the NewDLHE review) are two recent developments which have brought into focus the significance these employability measures have both in enhancing the student experience and in informing higher education policy.

Measuring work readiness: The Careers Registration programme

One of the 13 pilot programmes in HEFCE’s Learning Gain project is the Careers Registration programme, which focuses on employability. This is currently being run at 15 universities across the UK. It measures the impact of employability initiatives and allows students to self-evaluate their preparedness for employment.

The Careers Registration programme surveys students each time they enrol (or re-enrol) at their university, asking a selection of questions about a student’s employment plans. Students’ responses are analysed into categories of career readiness, such as: deciding, planning, completing, and sorted. The data collected to date shows that, across all years, by far the largest single group of students are in the deciding phase throughout their studies. Typically, just under half of undergraduates going into their final year would be in the deciding stage.

Concern with the abstract notion of employability often results in students taking on additional challenges and extracurricular activities for the sake of doing something; such undirected activities simply create more stress for the student.

Careers services can perform a vital intervention at this point. Data from the Careers Registration programme shows the invaluable role careers services play in helping students to understand what the ‘deciding’ phase involves and to make more informed decisions about how to invest their time and energy. The data also allows us to initiate discussion with students about how they can get themselves on track. However, an understanding of whether a student is ‘on track’ is only part of the picture; we also need to be able to measure students’ transitions into their post-graduation activities. HESA’s NewDLHE review promises us this additional data.

Capturing graduate outcomes: The NewDLHE review

Since 1993, HESA has produced data on graduate outcomes. This has become an increasingly high profile dataset and is used widely in league tables, policy making and planning within universities. The dataset is mined particularly for information on data about graduates in ‘graduate level employment’ (those in Standard Occupational Classification major groups 1-3) and graduates’ salaries. These are two important measures, but they have their limitations. Importantly, they do not capture a graduate’s own perception of whether their outcome is successful.

This is something HESA has acknowledged through its NewDLHE review of graduate outcomes data. The review has proposed three new ‘graduate voice’ measures to supplement data on salary and graduate level employment. These ask graduates to rate whether their activity is meaningful to them; whether they are utilising their skills; and whether they are on track towards their future goals.

If these measures are implemented, they will add crucial insight into the debate about the nature of a positive outcome from higher education. Being able to measure a graduate’s preparedness and sense of being on track will significantly enhance our ability to support students and to measure the effectiveness of employability initiatives. And, crucially, it provides a vital link back to the data we are collecting about current students through the Careers Registration programme.

HESA is currently consulting on its NewDLHE proposals, including these graduate voice measures (deadline for responses: 7 April). You can find out more and respond on the HESA website.

Dr Bob Gilworth is Director of the Careers Group who are running one of the Learning Gain pilots.